Mr. President, Esq.
For Better or Worse, Most U.S. Chief Executives Have Been Lawyers, Says a New Book
Posted Nov 26, 2004 12:41 AM CST
By James Podgers
Since George Washington’s first inauguration in 1789, the United States has had 42 presidents. More than half of them--25 to be exact--have been lawyers.
That fact raises an intriguing question: Do lawyers make better presidents?
The answer is a resounding “it depends,” say two of the experts involved in producing a new book that explores the legal careers of the 25 members of the bar who served the United States as president.
“There is no generalization that can be made across the board” about how much impact a legal background has on presidential skills, says Norman Gross, director of the ABA Museum of Law and editor of America’s Lawyer-Presidents: From Law Office to Oval Office.
Certainly, Gross says, most of the lawyer-presidents benefited from skills they learned as lawyers, such as persuasion and writing. More important, he says, was their exposure through the law to the real-life issues facing individuals and communities in the United States at the time they pursued their careers.
Paul Finkelman, who wrote about the legal career of Abraham Lincoln for the book, says a background in the law doesn’t necessarily predict presidential greatness. By and large, “I think our lawyer-presidents have been more sympathetic toward civil rights and individual rights,” says Finkelman, a professor at the University of Tulsa College of Law in Oklahoma.
But, he says, “Being a lawyer is no specific preparation for presidential greatness. Being a great president is a combination of management of people, enormous skill and luck.” The book was published in August by the ABA Museum of Law and Northwestern University Press. A companion exhibit opened in September at the Museum of Law at the ABA’s Chicago headquarters.
Finkelman is one of 29 historians, law professors, judges and lawyers who contributed chapters on the legal careers of each lawyer-president and other aspects of the relationship between law and the presidency. Lawrence M. Friedman, a law professor at Stanford University in California, contributed essays introducing the eras in which the lawyer-presidents served. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote a foreword for the book.
Lincoln Stands Out
In finkelman’s view, lincoln was not only the nation’s greatest president but the one most deeply influenced by his earlier career as a lawyer.
For Lincoln, Finkelman says, “Being a lawyer is deeply and powerfully significant.” An example of how Lincoln thought like a lawyer, Finkelman says, is the Emancipation Proclamation, which Lincoln issued in 1863 amid the fury of the Civil War to free slaves only in the states that had seceded from the Union. While some historians have criticized the document as too limited and cautious--one attributed to it “all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading” --Finkelman contends that it was “a deeply lawyerly” endeavor for Lincoln, drafted so that it would not be overturned by a dubious Supreme Court. Finkelman also points to Lincoln’s two inaugural addresses as eloquent proof that he “knows how to make a closing argument.”
Historians, contemporaries and even one of his former partners gave Lincoln’s legal career mixed reviews, but, Finkelman writes, “Whatever one’s view of his legal talents, they no doubt had a major effect on his political life and presidency. His knowledge and skills, and particularly his lawyerly way of addressing issues, were repeatedly reflected in his presidency and helped him succeed during America’s greatest crisis.” At the other end of the spectrum from Lincoln’s lawyerly greatness, Finkelman says, were such significant presidents as Thomas Jefferson (1801-09) and Andrew Jackson (1829-37). Jefferson, he says, often ignored constitutional theory and principles as president, while Jackson “was probably the least judicious president we’ve had.” Jackson’s policies were particularly antagonistic toward Native Americans. Finkelman also places Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton at the other end of the spectrum from Lincoln. Despite notable achievements, both “displayed a lawyerly arrogance” in office that helped lead to Nixon’s resignation and Clinton’s impeachment trial. “The law does teach arrogance,” he notes.
Finkelman’s choice for president with the most distinguished legal career is William Howard Taft, whose term as president in 1909-13 came amid a legal career that began in 1880 and ended in 1930, when Taft died while still serving in his dream job as U.S. chief justice. Taft also served as a state and federal court judge, law school professor and dean, and is the only U.S. president who also served as president of the ABA.
“Taft was at least a marginally successful president,” Finkelman says. But, “He would have preferred being chief justice all along.”
Benjamin Harrison is another less-distinguished president who might contend for best lawyer honors, Gross says. Harrison’s law practice, both before and after his term as president in 1889-93, included 15 arguments in cases before the Supreme Court. And Calvin Coolidge may best personify the quintessential country lawyer, who entered politics to bolster his law practice rather than the other way around.
After more than 200 years, the early 21st century may be marking the end of the era of lawyer-presidents.
Indeed, the 19th century rather than the 20th may have been the golden age of this country’s lawyer-presidents. Only four of the first 16 presidents were not lawyers, and from the end of the Civil War to the end of World War I, only Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant and Theodore Roosevelt were not lawyers.
But in the nearly 60 years since the end of World War II, only three men--Nixon, Clinton and Gerald Ford--have been lawyers.
Why Fewer Lawyer-Presidents?
There may be no single definitive answer, gross and Finkelman say, but one factor may be the changing role of the law as a stepping-stone to a career in politics. During the 19th century and into the 20th, Gross says, “There was a greater connection between law and politics.” But today, “There don’t seem to be any limitations or boundaries for someone entering politics.”
But the roster of postwar lawyer-presidents might have to be changed, or least get an asterisk, according to Gross. He notes that Harry S. Truman applied for admission to The Missouri Bar during his time as president--the return address on the letter was “The White House, Washington, D.C.” In response, a letter from The Missouri Bar informed President Truman that he needed to have his application for admission notarized, but he never bothered to send it back in. It wasn’t until the 1990s that Truman was admitted posthumously after someone found his application letter in the bar’s offices.
"Mr. President, Esq.," November 2004, page 66, mistakenly stated that William Howard Taft died while chief justice of the United States. In fact, Taft resigned Feb. 3, 1930, a little more than a month before his death. The Journal regrets the error.
American Lawyer-Presidents is available at bookstores. It also can be ordered online at at www.abanet.org/abastore or by calling the ABA directly at 800-285-2221. You can also buy the book through Northwestern University Press (www.nupress.northwestern.edu or 800-621-2736).